Much virtual ink has been spilt with the shock news that Ken Bruce is leaving BBC Radio 2 and will pop up on Bauer’s Greatest Hits Radio in April. (And excellent it is, too, to see a radio presenter’s career being the stuff of news headlines).
For background - Ken Bruce, 71, presents the most listened-to radio show in Europe. He’s an amiable, quick-witted Scot, and has had this slot for 37 years (except a 22 month period from March 1990, where he did lates then earlies). He earns a yearly salary of around £385,000 (US$476,000); Radio 2 has 14.4m listeners, each listening for 11.4 hours a week: a 16.1% share.
Greatest Hits Radio is a quasi-national service, occupying FM, AM and DAB signals across the UK, but carrying local news and ads, and a patchwork of regional shows. Its owner, Bauer Media Group, is the second-largest commercial radio group in the UK; it (including the heritage Scottish stations which change name to Greatest Hits Radio in April, and will take his show) reaches 4.1m people, each listening for 7.8 hours a week: a 3.2% share.
Given those figures, you might possibly ask: what’s in it for Ken? Well, he presented his BBC Radio 2 show at home (Thame in Oxfordshire) from March 2020 to May 2021. A man for whom family is important, it must have been weighing on his mind that with GHR he can still present a national radio show, but avoid the almost three hour daily commute into London. I’d be surprised if his new gig isn’t entirely home-driven. Rumour is that his new salary (which will be confidential, of course) will be around £500,000: but at 71, you’d think quality of life might also be as important as money.
Bauer can probably afford Ken Bruce. It’s just turned off the Absolute Radio 1215AM network and others (see below), which will, I would conservatively estimate, save them at least five Ken Bruces in transmission costs a year. It also, clearly, is a tool to attract advertisers.
And what does it mean for BBC Radio 2? Ken Bruce is a great broadcaster but, and I mean this very affectionately, he’s magnolia. A pleasant paint colour to put on the wall when you’re selling the house: because you know that nobody will be horribly offended by it. He’s someone people don’t switch off; not necessarily someone people would rush to switch on. That’s a skill by itself, and like Mark Goodier, who he presumably is replacing, he’s a good, tight, competent broadcaster, and he will have a number of loyal listeners. Experience has been (with Simon Mayo, who is also on Greatest Hits Radio, and with Chris Evans moving back to Virgin Radio) that the Radio 2 audience is loyal to the station, rather than the presenters. So, for Radio 2, it means a talent cost saving, and a continued extension of their aim to keep the station moving younger.
(Interestingly, Ken Bruce takes with him his feature Popmaster, for which he retains the IP. As astonishing lapse for the BBC, and a mistake, presumably, they wouldn’t let happen today.)
What does it mean for 65+ audiences who feel increasingly that BBC Radio has nothing relevant for them? Ah, that’s a much more interesting question. The rest of daytime Radio 2 are much younger - Zoe Ball is 52; Jeremy Vine is 57; Scott Mills is 49; Sara Cox is 48. What do these people know about being 70?
In Norway in 2013, when they repositioned NRK P1 as a younger sound, they unashamedly took the older presenters and put them onto NRK P1+, a digital service. That helped NRK retain older audiences, and helped promote DAB as a new format of listening. The BBC will have no appetite, or budget, to launch a “Radio 2 +”, of course; so perhaps this is where Boom Radio comes in - oddly, to fill in the public service void with a commercial service?